Drink in history at some of Austin’s bars

Updated July 09, 2014

Austin’s bar scene has a tendency to make what’s old new again — here are four local spots that cater to a modern crowd while retaining fascinating histories.

Historic Scoot Inn

The Scoot Inn is thought to be the longest continually running saloon in Austin. It opened in 1871 in East Austin at 1308 E. Fourth St. and operated with a dirt floor for more than 100 years.

General manager Lana Levins says despite its age, the bar’s past is not well-documented, but patrons often share stories of the years past and of former owners. One story Levins discovered mentioned a bar owner who helped catch an ax murder after being chased from the bar in 1885. Items turn up occasionally in the yard for outside seating.

“We’re always finding cool old railroad things in the yard, railroad spikes, old antique bottles,” Levins says. “We’ve kind of given the place a face-lift but are keeping the same vibe of this divey East Side bar, turned into this amazing music venue.”

It made recent history in March during South by Southwest when a Tyler the Creator daytime show had to be shut down because of crowd control. He was later charged with inciting a riot.

Today, the bar is home to a skeeball league, with several machines in house, and is a go-to indoor and outdoor venue for local musicians. While Scoot Inn is newly renovated with a modern sound system and seating, it will be keeping the memories of years past with planters sprinkled with memorabilia and relics that have been discovered throughout recent years.

“You can just feel the history in the place,” Levins says. “I don’t think we have any angry ghosts but a few that just want to get drunk.”

Scoot Inn’s signature drink is the Hammer, which is a can of Pearl beer and a shot of well whiskey. The bar is open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Its music lineup is listed at scootinnaustin.com.

Mean Eyed Cat

The Mean Eyed Cat is a Johnny Cash tribute bar that sits under a 300-year-old live oak heritage tree protected by the city, at 1621 W. Fifth St.

The bar is only a decade old and replaced Cut Rite chainsaw repair shop in 2004, although the structure dates back to the early 1900s. The bar is splattered with nods to Cash, including lyrics and memorabilia, along with western décor.

The bar was nearly shut down when Gables 5th Street Commons bought the land for residential use but was saved by the tree that shades the outdoor patio and stretches over the entire bar.

We “fought hard to save the bar, and once that was claimed a heritage tree, it basically saved the bar because the soil around it could not be disturbed,” Mean Eyed Cat owner Jed Thompson says.

That city label marks the oak as valuable for its age and irreplaceable. Only 5 percent of Austin trees meet the criteria, and live oaks must be nearly 130 years old to meet the city’s size requirements. The heritage tree title also ensures that the uses of the property it sits on remain as is.

At the Mean Eyed Cat, each cocktail is named after a Cash song for its taste or story. The Mean Eyed Cat’s signature cocktail is the Mean Margarita, which features Sauza Hornitos tequila, fresh lime juice, habanero lime syrup, muddled orange and jalapeno and a splash of Cointreau served on the rocks with a tajin rim.

“The Mean Margarita is just so spicy the name just seemed fitting,” Thompsom says.

The margarita is a year-round staple among a rotating menu, including a drink named Goin’ to Jackson and A Drink Named Sue. The bar is open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. themeaneyedcat.com.

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy is only a 2-year-old bar, but it has embraced its location’s shoddy past. It kept the name of the brothel concealed as a massage parlor that operated for more than 30 years at 313 E. Sixth St.

The building dates back to the late 1800s and was home to a butcher shop and secondhand store in its early years before eventually housing Midnight Cowboy Modeling and Oriental Massage.

The bar owned by Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League kept the name because of the 1969 movie, along with the massage parlor’s intercom buzzer entry system. The small space has been updated with a speakeasy feel that holds only 42 guests at a time and sticks strictly to a two-hour reservation schedule, although it offers restaurant-style wait service.

“We decided to keep it low volume and just the location of it being right on ‘dirty’ Sixth Street, where there is a lot of shot bars and a college crowd, we were trying to provide a different outlook for a bar on Sixth Street, a different option,” bar manager Brian Dressel says. “Because of the space, we can’t be a regular bar just letting anyone in, which led to the speakeasy vibe.”

The bar doesn’t boast a signature drink, though its rotating menu spotlights a few customer favorites including the Joe Buck, Smoke and Mirrors and, currently on the menu, the Orchard 77 containing Old Tom gin, amaretto, lemon, white balsamic vinegar, apples, salt and prosecco. The bar is open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday by reservation only.

Firehouse Hostel and Lounge

Firehouse Hostel and Lounge is a red rustic repurposing of Austin’s first fire station, built in 1885. It sits across the street from the Driskill hotel at 605 Brazos St.

The fire station named Washington Fire Engine Co. No. 1 protected the city with a horse-drawn steam engine until 1916, when it moved to Colorado Street.

“Anyone that was associated with that fire station were the who’s who that had pull with the city at that point,” co-owner and general manager Mariana Guerrero says. “It was a status symbol.”

Guerrero says the station is also noted as the first to employ an African-American, Essex Carrington, who was the water wagon driver. Washington No. 1 was the first on the scene fighting the 1881 fire at the old Capitol building and served as the longest-running volunteer fire company. It did not transition into the modern era with professional firefighters and firetrucks.

The building now serves as a cozy lounge with a small stage for jazz tunes on the first floor and as a hostel on the two upper floors. Although the building is nearly 130 years old, the rooms have been updated with modern conveniences while retaining the firehouse history.

The building once resembled the Driskill but was renovated during the art deco era and given a rectangular look. The space housed a law office for years before the upper floors were abandoned in the 1980s. Before its current ownership, several bars made use of the main floor, even a few called “the Firehouse.” It was was most recently a dubstep club.

The hostel ranges from $29 to $119 a night, depending on privacy level, and reflects the lounge style. The lounge mixes reclaimed wood furniture and firehouse memorabilia throughout the space.

“We’re paying homage to the men who worked here as firefighters with our name, so any firefighter from any part of the country is welcome to come in here and will definitely be treated like family,” Guerrero says. “This was their house before it was ours.”

Firehouse’s signature drink is the Firehouse Old Fashioned, containing rye bitters, sugar and citrus zest.

The lounge is open daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., with happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. www.firehousehostel.com